Overshadowed by narco-violence, another showdown with far-reaching consequences is unfolding near the Mexico-U.S. border. Striking workers have occupied a Grupo Mexico-owned copper mine and vow to resist any company or government attempts to evict them from the premises. Last month, a Mexican federal court blocked legal efforts to uphold a labour contract.
By Kent Paterson*
Since July 2007, Section 65 of the National Union of Miners, Metal, and Allied Workers in Cananea, Sonora, has held firm in a strike against Grupo Mexico over contract and safety issues. Three months prior to the strike, Mexico’s Labor Ministry took 72 corrective actions. An inspection later that year by a delegation of independent Mexican and U.S. occupational health and safety experts discovered large accumulations of deadly dust. But hot on the heels of a January 2008 ruling by the Federal Labor and Conciliation Board that the strike was illegal, federal and Sonora state police violently removed the strikers. The union won legal appeals, but a higher labor court finally came down on the side of the company and the Calderon administration last February 11. Trade unionists, elected officials, and opposition activists sharply criticized the strike-breaking legal move. “We are back in 1906. There is no rule of law in Mexico,” affirmed opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. “The judicial power is rotten, and as is the case with all the institutions, at the service of the oligarchy.”
Ironically, the current strike takes place at a site that holds great relevance for this year’s 100th anniversary celebration of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Many historians consider the 1906 strike at the Cananea mine, which was then owned by North Americans who called on Arizona Rangers to bloodily suppress the workers’ movement, a key catalyst of the revolutionary upheaval that swept Mexico a few years later. The Cananea decision was but the latest in many ominous developments for the Mexican labor movement. Last October, the Calderon administration unilaterally seized the Central Light and Power Company that serves Mexico City and surrounding areas, firing more than 44,000 members of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), one of the few militant and independent unions in the country.
Not backing down, the SME mounted stiff protests and helped organize a partial, one-day national strike of sympathetic unions last December. But calls for a bigger general strike have yet to translate into concrete actions, and the majority of SME members have reportedly accepted government severance payments and offers of small business assistance. According to news reports, similar severance packages have been prepared for the Cananea strikers. For Calderon’s Labor Secretary Javier Lozano, the February 11 court ruling to declare the strike illegal was a decision made “in accordance with the law.” Supported by some Mexican legislators, the striking miners are attempting to revoke Grupo Mexico’s concession to operate the Cananea mine.
The Squeeze on Workers
The battles involving Mexico’s electricians and miners take place amid deteriorating conditions for the country’s workers. According to official figures cited in the Mexican press, the unemployment rate shot up from 3.39% at the beginning of 2006 to early 6% by the end of 2009. However, the official joblessness rate masks the fact that more than 12 million Mexicans, or nearly 30% of the workforce, make their living selling goods and labor in the informal sector. Already at quarter-century lows, the purchasing power of Mexican workers took a severe beating in 2009 and early 2010, when price hikes for fuel, food, and other basic necessities were rendered doubly burdensome by regressive tax increases. At the same time, many workers did not receive their annual Christmas bonuses for the important holiday spending season. Worse yet, substandard or temporary jobs are the only ones available to many Mexican workers.
According to the spokeswoman for an independent organization that advocates for women factory workers in Aguascalientes, the Great Recession has led to unsafe working conditions, unpaid overtime, fewer benefits, and speed-ups on the shop floor.
“Workers are accepting more and more unfavorable conditions,” said Sara Montes, coordinator of the Raiz Collective. A major trend accelerated by the crisis is the greater use of temporary labor by employers. “Every year, you see that temporary contracts of one month or three months are the order of the day,” Montes said. According to the labor activist, workers in Aguascalientes’ export-oriented factories, or maquiladoras, earn a base salary of about US$5 per day.
Daniel Rocha, coordinator for the Center for Labor Studies and Action, a labor advocacy group in Ciudad Juarez, also noted a deterioration in working conditions in the border maquiladora industry. Rocha said the firing of 75 Foxconn workers after a February 18 protest broke out at the electronic manufacturer’s new Ciudad Juarez plant was a troubling sign for labor rights. Many of the workers were employed by temporary agencies under contract with Foxconn, which produces components for industry giants like Dell. Rocha said outsourcing is becoming more common in Ciudad Juarez, with some contracts lasting as little as 15 days at a time. “It is not just in Foxconn,” Rocha said. “It is in other maquiladoras too.” A recent study by the Mexico City-based Center for Labor Research and Union Advisement (CILAS) estimated that fully 10% of the nation’s workforce is now employed by temp agencies like Manpower.
Adios to the Class Struggle
To formalize the brave new world of capital-labor relations, business groups and the Calderon administration seek to overhaul Mexico’s labor law. Pending approval by the Mexican Congress, the reforms backed by Labor Secretary Lozano include making strikes harder to call, allowing multi-tasking in the workplace, extending probation and training times at below normal starting wage, changing shift and wage rules, and expanding outsourcing. Labor advocates like Montes agree that the country’s labor law needs changing, but worry about the creep of precarious, temporary work standards under the guise of “flexibility.” In Montes’ view, labor law reform should emphasize guaranteeing free and fair union elections.
For decades, many Mexican workers have been legally represented by unions affiliated with the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). An integral part of the corporatist state that ruled Mexico, the unions acted as power brokers that guaranteed millions of votes to PRI politicians in return for modest concessions. But with corporatist unions and “white unions” negotiating sweetheart deals directly with employers, it was—and still is—common that many workers do not even know they are represented by a union. Independent labor activists frequently criticize the traditional unions for not stepping up to the plate for the workers they presume to represent. In Aguascalientes, for example, unions have been slow to address women’s occupational health and safety concerns, according to Montes. “We do the work they should,” she said. In fundamental ways, though, even the old corporatist, or “charro,” unions are increasingly obsolete in Mexico’s rush to globalization and the replacement of the old centralized PRI regime in favor of a more fractured, alternating set of political arrangements between different parties.
Many of these unions undermined their own role by agreeing to employer-worker acts that suppressed wages and restricted the right to strike in the name of fighting inflation and upholding national unity. Backed by the PRI as well as President Calderon’s National Action Party, reforms to the IMSS and ISSSTE public employee pension funds pried open the door to privatized accounts managed by foreign financial firms that undermined labor solidarity.
Union corruption scandals have been another huge factor in weakening the potential power and public credibility of the labor movement. Every new order needs a legitimizing ideology, and the modern Mexican system is no exception. In this sense, a class-free political perspective is gaining more ground. Lorena Martinez, adjunct secretary-general of the PRI, which intends to win more state elections this year and recapture the Mexican presidency in 2012, was recently quoted as saying that instead of class struggle a new labor-capital collaboration is required to work “hand in hand in a just equilibrium.”
NAFTA’s Union-Free Landscape
In many ways, the emerging set of capital-labor relations in Mexico mimics the ones perfected in the United States, where outsourcing, speed-up, and “win-win” labor-capital contracts took hold long ago, in which strikes and grievances were shelved in return for supposed labor participation in company decision-making and profit-sharing. In the United States, the results have been disastrous for the labor movement and workers. In 2010 union representation is at a historic low, and the purchasing power of U.S. workers is at its skimpiest in recent memory.
A sea of more than 23 million unemployed or underemployed workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, creates downward pressure on wages and working conditions, and means there are plenty of workers willing to accept increasingly low-paid, non-union jobs with few or non-existent benefits. The same is true for Mexico, but more so. The Great Recession has been a boon to capital as workforces are thinned out, wage pressures are contained, and productivity is cranked up to new heights. Other developments in the United States resemble events long familiar in Mexico. In an ongoing wave of International Monetary Fund-like ordered structural adjustments, public workers face lay-offs, mandatory furloughs, and wage cuts as state and municipal treasuries continue to reel from budget crises and pension busts stemming from Wall Street pillage and looting.
According to a new report from the Washington, DC-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 45 states and the District of Columbia cut public services in 2008 and 2009. Local and state governments slashed 172,000 jobs in an employment hemorrhaging that could have been worse if not for $140 billion in federal stimulus allocations to the states. To put the amount in perspective, the stimulus spending was roughly equivalent to the sum set aside last year for executive compensation by the United States’ six largest banks, according to Rolling Stone magazine.
The CBPP projects total U.S. state budget shortfalls to reach $375 billion in 2010 and 2011, likely leading to additional lay-offs, service cuts, and outsourcing schemes.
In early March, the Los Angeles Unified School Board agreed to send preliminary pink notices to more than 5,000 teachers. In Mexico, many municipalities find themselves in the same circumstances. In Puerto Vallarta, for instance, a city which depends on free-spending foreign tourists found itself in a $60 million hole at the beginning of the year.
In both nations, a slew of regressive sales taxes, fee hikes, and tuition increases are stinging the middle and working classes. North and south of the border, cross-party, conservative coalitions are blocking grassroots demands to make the rich pay their fair share of the crisis. Teachers, one of the few organized sectors of labor left standing, are under fierce attack. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law inspired a mass firing of instructors at Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School last month that many fear constitutes a declaration of war against educators. In Mexico too, teachers are the new bogeyman for a growing social crisis stemming from corporate globalization, rural and urban disinvestment, institutional racism, misplaced public priorities, and widespread political corruption. The standard media frame of striking teachers leaving children without education or inconveniencing the public ignores the dilapidated conditions of many schools, overcrowded classrooms, and inadequate investment in the sector.
U.S. Democratic Party campaign pledges to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and pass the Employee Free Choice Act have been indefinitely shelved. As these measures to help out workers gather dust, companies like Whirlpool ship jobs to Mexico and other low-wage countries where free trade agreements assure them all the advantages of cheap labor with few of the regulatory costs.
A New Cross-Border Fightback?
A few combative unions and their allies are waging defensive struggles against the neo-liberal offensive. Slammed by budget cuts, thousands of California college students and higher education workers plan a new round of protests and campus occupations beginning this week. The movement is starting to spread to other states, with protests against cuts also planned in New York and elsewhere. A national organization, Bail out the People, urges movements to link issues of jobs and education with stopping wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Late last month, more than 5,000 workers and supporters rallied in Evansville, Indiana, to protest the transfer of 1,100 Whirlpool production jobs to Mexico.
Cananea is another focal point of resistance. A February 19-20 worker meeting at the mine drew representatives of the United Steelworkers of America, which in turn, had received support from Mexican workers during a 2005 strike against the Grupo Mexico-owned Asarco mining and smelting firm in Arizona. “You are not alone. We know that the working and living conditions of one group of workers affects the conditions of others,” USW representative Jim Robinson told the large gathering. “The struggle of the mineros against Grupo Mexico affects the struggle of the Steelworkers against Grupo Mexico in Arizona … Mexico’s National Workers Union, a federation representing telephone company workers, pilots, university workers, and others recently announced it will help maintain a “security belt” around the mine to stave off a police or military assault.
But some pro-labor activists maintain much more needs to be done. Until now, most union struggles have stayed safely confined within the narrow parameters of one issue, said Jose Maldonado of Aguascalientes’ Aqui Estamos organization, a group that supports the movement of opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Little by little, the government has picked off the movements, Maldonado contended. “All that remains for it to do is get rid of the mine workers,” Maldonado said. “Unfortunately, there is a lack of unity and everyone is looking out for their own interests,” he added. “What they don’t realize is that sooner or later the government will come after them.”
Meantime, the clock ticks in Cananea. Quoted in Proceso magazine shortly before the February 11 court decision came down, strike committee leader Jesus Verdugo said the miners were ready for anything. “If what they want are martyrs in Cananea, then they will find them here,” Verdugo said. “At the doors of the mine.” As in 1906, the Cananea showdown could presage which way the wind blows in Mexico. And perhaps even in the United States.
*Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwest of the United States, Mexico, and Latin America, and he is an analyst for the Americas Program at www.americaspolicy.org.
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Photo credit: Maquila cartoon: Rel-UITA